Saturday, November 4, 2017

Twisted Sisters

Throughout history, women who had the unmitigated gall to think for themselves were labeled as dangerous eccentrics. Despite their success as rulers (Cleopatra) or pirate queens (Grace O'Malley), the medical profession routinely diagnosed women as hysterics. The Salem witch trials found new ways to humiliate, excoriate, and eliminate them. Who else might qualify as a nasty woman?
Some see eccentricity as the gateway to madness, as evidenced in these clips from Dominick Argento's opera, Miss Havisham's Wedding Night and Billy Wilder's 1950 cinema classic, Sunset Boulevard.

Others see eccentricity as a celebration of the life force, of self-indulgence, or as a refusal to be defined by others.

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First performed in 1945, The Madwoman of Chaillot revolves around Countess Aurelia, a Parisian eccentric who lives in an idealistic fantasy world. After his success with Milk and Honey (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964), and Mame (1966), Jerry Herman turned to Jean Giradoux's parable as the source material for his next musical. Having read and loved the play while in college, Herman was deeply impressed by how Aurelia's "backwards philosophy shows her form of madness as a kind of reverse intelligence." Consider the spoken portion of Aurelia's entrance song, "Each Tomorrow Morning."
"When I first wake up tomorrow morning, it may not seem so promising. When you take your hair out of the drawer and your teeth out of the glass, you're apt to feel a little out of place in the world, especially if you've just been dreaming you're a little girl on a pony searching for strawberries in the woods. But one must face the day, so you put on your jewels, your rings, your brooches, bracelets, earrings, and pearls, and have a good look at yourself. Not in the glass, naturally (it lies), but in the side of the big brass gong that once belonged to the immortal Sarah. Then, Pierre, then you're ready for tomorrow morning."
Angela Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia in 1969's Dear World

Although Dear World was not one of Herman's successes, it has developed a cult following among musical theatre fans for his music and lyrics. Following a rocky tryout in Boston, the show kept adding previews prior to its opening at the Mark Hellinger Theatre while the creative team tried to fix it. Among the songs cut from Dear World in Boston was "A Sensible Woman."
"A sensible woman will walk through the sewers
To keep her hair out of the rain.
A sensible woman will not bother her poor head at night
With thoughts of thieves around about,
She wears her pearls to bed at night.

A sensible woman grows spirited flowers
By watering them with champagne.
And even though life may seem distraught with inhumanity
Reason and rhyme and sanity gone,
With her head on her shoulder, her hand on her hatpin,
A sensible woman goes on.

A sensible woman creates her own fashions
Believing that hats should be hats.
She writes herself letters filled with witty past and present news
That way she's sure tomorrow that
The news she gets is pleasant news."
Angela Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia in 1969's Dear World
"A sensible woman when faced with a problem
Confers with her sensible cats.
And even when face to face with all of the world's banality
Its individuality gone,
With her eye on its target, her parasol brandished,
A sensible woman goes on.

A sensible woman will trade with a grocer
Some gossip for onions and rice.
And then when her birthday comes,
She'll simply say "Away with it,"
She'll add another beauty spot
She'll choose an age and stay with it.

A sensible woman sets traps for the landlord
And plays with the neighborhood mice.
And if there's a moment when the night seems dark and endless
Her life seems frail and friendless and wan.
With a grasp on her senses, a grip on her handbag,
With wisdom and wit and elan,
With courage and cat food, with grit and galoshes,
That sensible woman goes on and on and on and on and on."
Gabrielle (Jane Connell), Countess Aurelia (Angela Lansbury)
and Constance (Carmen Mathews) enjoy a mad tea party in
a scene from Jerry Herman's 1969 musical, Dear World

Today, Giradoux's subversiveness seems more relevant than ever. Terrified by the ruthless capitalists determined to dig for oil directly under Paris, Aurelia invites two of her closest friends -- Gabrielle (The Madwoman of Montmartre) and Constance (The Madwoman of the Flea Market) -- to a tea party where they can figure out how to thwart the predatory businessmen and save the world. For his musical adaptation, Jerry Herman wrote a tea party trio for the three madwomen (Jane Connell as Gabrielle, Angela Lansbury as Aurelia, and Carmen Mathews as Constance) which has been largely ignored by history. And yet, if one listens carefully, one can hear a master musical storyteller at work.

* * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle, Constance, and Aurelia recently acquired a new French connection with a contemporary eccentric holding center stage at the Magic Theatre during the world premiere production of The Eva Trilogy. Born as Eve ("Shouldn't a god be ashamed to trick an innocent girl, fresh off the rib?") in the Irish seaside village of Rush in County Dublin, this nasty woman left home at an early age and headed for Paris where, among other things, she experimented with prostitution, lesbianism, and living life on her own terms. According to playwright Barbara Hammond, "The role of Eva is a particularly difficult one to fill: deeply sensual but not overtly provocative, street smart but inadequately educated, wicked funny but with a hard-won compassion. The actor portraying her must be believable from age 35 to 65 and have serious chops."

Julia McNeal stars in The Eva Trilogy
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Hammond's three short plays are written in radically different styles.
  • Eden is a monologue for the middle-aged spinster (Julia McNeal) who has been called home from Paris -- "Just flew in on Aer Fungus" --  by her sister, Teresa (Lisa Anne Porter), to care for their dying mother while Teresa and her husband, Eamon (Rod Gnapp), take a long overdue vacation to Majorca. Having lived in France for the past two decades, Eva stresses that "the only country I come from is the womb -- the whole human family comes from there."
  • Enter the Roar focuses on a judicial hearing in which Teresa, Eamon, a hospice worker named Roisin, (Amy Nowack) and Father O'Leary (Justin Gillman) debate whether Eva's mother died of natural causes while Teresa and Eamon were on vacation or was given a helping hand by Eva in an effort to free the old woman from her pain -- or whether Eva took matters out of God's hands by making the decision about Eileen's death all by herself.
  • No Coast Road finds Eva living in the woods on the island of Corsica 30 years later after having one leg amputated. Is she demented or a hermit who must walk with a cane? A free spirit or antisocial? As visions of a wood nymph (Megan Trout) flit across the greenery, Eva is visited by a handsome, hungry, young American hiker named Tom (Caleb Cabrera) who, though he may be weakened by thirst. is nowhere near as suicidal as Eva imagines.
Julia McNeal and Caleb Cabrera in a scene from The Eva Trilogy
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Because The Eva Trilogy is structured in three acts (each lasting approximately 45 minutes), the audience gets to see a playwright take three different approaches to one person's story. How that plays out physically onstage is largely sculpted by director Loretta Greco. The writing, however, remains squarely in Hammond's hands.
  • Eden has a lyrical quality to it that relies on the actor portraying Eva. Written as a laid-back monologue to be performed with a thick Irish accent, it bounces back and forth between whimsy, sarcasm, loneliness, and defiance, painting Eva as a strong-willed woman who has steadfastly refused to become what the local villagers might have expected of her.
  • By contrast, Enter the Roar has a furious energy as Teresa, Eamon, and Roisin pace back and forth, stopping to voice their opinions to a judge on the delicate topic of who owns a life (a person or the law) and whether Eileen's death should be treated as an act of mercy in the form of euthanasia or murder with malice aforethought. The contrast between the compassionate concerns of the three caregivers and the toxic mixture of dispassionate dogma and pompous platitudes voiced by Father O'Leary bring the touchy topic of assisted suicide front and center.
  • Surprisingly, No Coast Road is the most poignant of Hammond's short plays as it matches the sadder but wiser Eva against the young and curious Tom while a ghost of Eva's younger self can be seen haunting the woods around her campsite.
Rod Gnapp (Eamon) and Justin Gillman (Father O'Leary) in a
scene from The Eva Trilogy (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

With sets and projections designed by Hana S. Kim, costumes by Alex Jaeger, lighting by Stephen Strawbridge, and sound design by David Van Tieghem, Magic Theatre's six-character ensemble owes a great deal to dialect coach Jessica Berman and Loretta Greco for the depth of their characterizations. As the company's artistic director explains:
“The Catholicism that is inextricably woven through this Irish odyssey, the richly complicated relationship between mother and daughter, and the combination of dark humor and formidable will found in its central character are all qualities of this trilogy that captivated me emotionally. Each play has its own integrity as a stand-alone piece, and each unfolds in surprising, theatrically unique ways. Upon reading Barbara’s trilogy in our December Virgin Play Fest, we immediately committed to producing the whole of it.”
Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, with
the late Sam Shepard (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)
“For me, the sum of the parts offers an incomparable and intimate map towards a communal exploration of some of humanity’s most essential questions: How do we conduct our lives? Who do our lives truly belong to? What is the price of pursuing a fully liberated existence? These are some of the evocative themes that vibrate throughout Barbara’s remarkably trilogy. Its stunning literary prowess, wild theatricality, and coursing compassion are truly extraordinary.”
Kudos to Julia McNeal, Justin Gillman, Caleb Cabrera, and Lisa Anne Porter for their exceptional work. While The Eva Trilogy is the kind of evening that could not have pulled together without a solid rehearsal period, the importance of solid preparation was highlighted on opening night when a fire alarm went off and the audience was instructed to evacuate the theatre. As one expects to find on cruise ships and in public schools, emergency procedures were solidly in place, facilitating an orderly mass exit with no panic from anyone in the cast, crew, or audience.

Caleb Cabrera in a scene from The Eva Trilogy
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Performances of The Eva Trilogy continue through November 12 at the Magic Theatre (click here for tickets).

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